If there is a prevailing theme that runs through issue No. 3 of Art North, it is about how we write history (and thus, to an extent, how we write our future too, for both are obviously linked in many ways). Historian Simon Schama’s book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1994) is, I believe, an exemplar in the writing of what we refer to as ‘history’, for it is there that he so skilfully interweaves the ‘process’ of the Revolution with the much smaller and far more obscure personal (hi)stories that often go unnoticed or are all-too-often erased from the greater historical record that prevails. The writing of art’s history should be no different if it is in the more intimate stories that we often find the true indicators of what events really mean at the time they occur, and so documenting these smaller, more intimate stories is, in my own view, crucial.
Over the summer, a work (part of which appears above) was installed in the church of St Clement’s in Rodel, East Harris, but were it not for me being belatedly alerted to it via social media, it may have passed me by completely. Erlend Brown and Dave Jackson’s Seven Waves installation is an interpretation of George Mackay Brown’s cycle of poems Tryst on Egilsay – a story of how, nine centuries ago, the devoutly Christian Earl Magnus Erlendsson, ruler of Orkney and Shetland with his cousin Earl Haakon, was betrayed and murdered on the island of Egilsay, one of the Orkney islands; an ‘event’ that ushered in what’s now described as an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity in Northern Europe. Each poem by George Mackay Brown is the subject of huge canvas sails, or ‘waves’, each of which was suspended from the rafters within the perfect setting of St Clement’s.
Having not caught on to this ‘historic’ installation until now, though, it was sadly too late to include it in this issue. We will, however, make some amends by featuring the work of Erlend Brown in an upcoming issue of Art North, duly noting opinion that the installation represented an interesting link between Orkney and Harris. I have always found commentary on the commonality of islander experience persuasive, particularly as it has become framed by the “islandness” concept developed by the artists Vivian Ross-Smith and Jane Walker (both featured in Art North, no.1). Both are artists who know only too well that it is in the small details of our daily life experiences that a sense of who we are is best understood. It should also perhaps be noted that Mackay Brown is mentioned in this issue of Art North by both archaeologist Antonia Thomas and art critic Peter Hill (see p.29 & p.31 respectively), and that he was also, as some readers well know, the uncle of Erlend Brown, whose work I have been referring to. History is often made in small ways – in the ‘micro-moments’ of personal experiences and connections that greater historical narratives often diminish or exclude.
To turn to the other artwork appearing on this page (above), it is by Helen Glassford and was made some years ago now. But why is it here? In my last Editorial (Art North, no.2), I remarked on the wildfires that had adversely affected our production schedule, and I posed the question that, while the landscape that I see from my window may very well inspire many of our artists, how many of them feel inspired by the sight of parched earth and peatlands after such a burn? Glassford’s painting Blackened Heather, 2009, is but one example of many, I have found. Conversations with others since then, have subsequently confirmed to me that artists do, of course, care deeply about our stewardship of the landscape that inspires them. Indeed, many are actively seeking to do something about the quality of that stewardship and care, and often in ‘practical’ ways, as well as ‘artistic’.
I mention this here for the reason that, while Art North has featured environmentally-related art between its covers before, for this issue we have added four extra pages that offer us space to consider some of the ways in which our environment is buckling in plain sight and the remedial work that both artists and non-artists alike are doing (or have done) to rectify our historical failures in this regard. In some cases the burden seems great (my own report p.40, serves as an example of what looks like a hopeless case), but in others, such as Alec Finlay’s (p.37) the intersection between art, poetry, and the landscape fosters a sense of true hope, and one that should be celebrated, I believe.
Other themes in this issue are many, but I believe they connect up. For my part, I’ve highlighted what I see as some key points of note – whether they relate to my thinking on the micro-moments of High Modernism that we may still detect in our midst, or in our reevaluation of past moments from art’s history that might reveal fresh insights. Am I correct to pick this time to look again for the Sublime in art, for example? Or has that term now lost its meaning altogether? Some artists I speak to say not. Others write it off as nostalgic nonsense in a time of uncertainty.
Perhaps Philip Braham sums up our times best in his claim (p.23) that, “with no progressive path forward, many artists put their work to useful causes: socio-political critique, environmental activism, sexual and gender politics, ethnic and minority advocacy, urban regeneration [...] Some spurn critical theory altogether, turning to social media platforms that provide instant gratification for their productions with endorsements and shares. Others prefer to play in the ruins of Modernism, parodying, satirising, ironicising...” His list goes on – proof enough that these are surely complex times, indeed.
Whatever your own view, and I have mine, the better we can communicate now about not just our art but our environmental interventions occurring at a local, national, and international level, the greater chance we have of recognising our commonality of experience in the north. If we do not, then that way lies the road to obscurity.
Art North, Autumn 2019